restricted access Ressentiment and the Social Poetics of The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald Reads Cather
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Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 917-940

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Ressentiment and the Social Poetics of The Great Gatsy: Fitzgerald Reads Cather

Robert Seguin

Following his bout of emotional exhaustion in the mid-1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald came to describe what he called his "crack-up" in more than strictly personal terms. In his meditation on his depression, the crack-up expands outward in waves from Fitzgerald as individual, encompassing disparate social and cultural materials and achieving a certain allegorical intensity. At one point, the shape of Fitzgerald's psyche becomes expressive of the very curve of national history, from the bull-market twenties to the depressed thirties:

My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but I had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distil into little lines in books--and I think that my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception. It was not the natural thing but the unnatural--unnatural as the Boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over. (Crack-Up 84) [End Page 917]

There is an extravagance to this declaration, an extravagance I want to take seriously. I will thus assume as my working hypothesis that Fitzgerald is entirely correct in this bit of analytical retrospection, and that the discontinuous sine waves of emotions and history can, in some exceptional cases, become temporarily synchronized. Indeed, the nexus mediating between the individual subject and the social ground in this passage seems principally an affective one, and in general Fitzgerald's writerly metabolism, its shape and trajectory through time, appears tied with unusual intimacy to a consistent and highly wrought emotional set. This affective matrix, as the above quote from The Crack-Up illustrates, is often self-consciously foregrounded as a kind of interpretive apparatus in its own right. What I wish to pursue in these pages, then, is the manner in which a particular affect can attain a deeper historical resonance, how it might furnish a singular set of conduits or relays between the facts of an individual life, a determinate set of aesthetic practices, and the specific rhythms of a given historical moment.

The social and political sources and functions of the emotions in general remain poorly understood, screened off in part by a tendency to grasp their material complexity as a matter of the individual subject as such, of one's own idiosyncratic makeup. The case of Fitzgerald prompts us, however, to explore a little further, to imagine the affective realm as one of concrete social expression, complete with precise temporal dynamics and figural embodiments which variously mediate social content and lived experience. The specific affect that I focus on here is, not happiness, but rather ressentiment, "resentment" in English. I retain the French to remind the reader of its Nietzschean usage, wherein it already begins to assume the form of a social-structural passion, as Nietzsche (in a politically conservative manner) positions ressentiment as the principal class affect--the "smouldering hatred of a peasant," as Fitzgerald would describe his own attitude toward the upper classes (Crack-Up 77)--directed at the putatively superior aristocracy and related titled or monied groups. While it remains an ideological maneuver to interpret progressive and egalitarian political movements in terms of envy and hatred--a move that marks ressentiment's discursive translation into what Fredric Jameson has termed an ideologeme, one of the minimal units of antagonistic class discourse 1 --nonetheless ressentiment is real, a corrosive [End Page 918] emotion that extends across the breadth of the class structure, the very tone of both its grim dramas of rising and falling and its petty quotidian power games alike. Such a choice of affect, one that already displays vivid social content, perhaps makes our overall task here somewhat easier, and allows us to specify at the outset that class dynamics--one of Fitzgerald's abiding...